Story: Helena Writes #42: On opening the images and memories we carry

Helena Writes, Helena Clare Pittman's monthly Center column on her writing life
Date Posted:
2/23/2022

Helena Clare Pittman, one of the Center’s most dedicated teachers, has written, painted, and taught her entire life. In her monthly Helena Writes series, she shares a lifetime of wisdom, one pearl at a time.

In her 42nd post, Helena shares part of her book Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn and how she came to write it. Enjoy!

Circles in the Sand, an excerpt from Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn

“Ruthela,” says Grandma Anna on the telephone. “Sunday we’re having a beach party—Mrs. Ostrow and the others. You’ll come?” My grandmother and Mrs. Ostrow, who I call Aunt Sophie, came to America on the same boat.

“Sunday?” I look at my mother. I know she’s heard my grandmother. When Grandma Anna speaks on the telephone you can hear her as far as the bedrooms at the other end of the hallway.

She nods over the supper dishes. “You’ll enjoy yourself,” she says. “Go.”

“But, Mamma, I’ll be the only child.”

My grandmother chuckles at the other end of the telephone. “Sweetheart,” she says, “you’ll be the star. We’ll have a good swim, Ruthie, come!”

Mamma is looking at me, waiting for my answer. “O.K., Grandma,” I finally say.

“Don’t worry, Ruthela,” says Grandma Anna. “Kishkes and salami sandwiches, your favorite.  See you Sunday!”

I love my grandmother’s kishkes. My brother turns green when she brings them. “Cow’s intestines,” he groans.

Grandma Anna calls every day. “I’ll pack cucumbers,” she says Thursday. “Olives, Ruthela,” she says Friday. “Don’t forget your bathing suit!” she says Saturday. Sunday, “Bring a hat. It will be hase.”

“Grandma, please speak English—what is hase?”

“Hot,” says my mother. “You can wear your new bathing suit.”

My new bathing suit is blue. Mamma and I bought it on sale in September. I put it on and look into the mirror. It’s ribbed and ruffled.

In the kitchen drawer, I find a grocery bag. I fold the bathing suit and slip it inside.

We meet in front of my grandmother’s apartment building around the corner. “Mamela!” she calls. It means Little Mother. “I have to put away the garbage.” She’s holding two paper bags. “You brought your bathing suit?” I hold up my bag. “Na—here,” she says in Yiddish, then English.

We go through the side door into the basement. “I was about to throw the garbage away upstairs, then Sophie called, and I forgot—mine, mine, mine!” My grandmother snaps her tongue. “Here, Ruthie, give me your bag.”  She opens her paper bag and puts mine inside.

When we get to the dumbwaiter, she gives me both of her bags. “Hold these,” she says.

She pokes the bell and opens the door. “Mr. Handleman!” she cries up the shaft, which smells like old garlic. She prods the bell again. “Mr. Handleman!”

“It’s Mr. Hanrahan, Grandma. Han-ra-han,” I tell her.

“Close the door, Mrs. Bailenson!” calls the superintendent.

“There!” says my grandmother, shutting the door. The dumbwaiter’s cables groan, then stop. My grandmother opens the door. “Here, Mamela, let me have this bag.” She sets it on the wooden platform. “Here it comes, Mr. Handleman!” she calls and slams the door. The cables groan as the dumbwaiter moves up the shaft.

“Kishkes and salami!” Grandma Anna says, shaking the other bag as we walk outside. My grandmother’s legs are short, bulging with muscles. We hurry toward the avenue. Waves of heat rise from the sidewalk.

“I can’t wait to swim,” I say.

“We’ll eat first,” says my grandmother.

“But it’s hot, Grandma.”

“So we’ll swim, then we’ll eat. Then we’ll rest and swim again—and eat!” Her big dress is flapping; cutout leather shoes with stubby heels thump on the pavement as she hurries along like the wind.

At the bus stop she hands me the paper bag while she looks for change. My mother bought my grandmother a canvas bag, but she won’t use it. “A paper bag is good—a modern invention!” she told my mother. This one has a grease stain and smells like fish.

At last, the bus appears in a cloud of fumes. Its brakes screech; the door opens. We find a seat. “Give it to me,” says my grandmother, taking the bag. It sits proudly in her lap.

At the train station, Aunt Sophie is waiting. Six stops to Riis Park. Aunt Sophie and my grandmother speak Yiddish. I gaze through the window into the subway tunnel, watching lights, the color of my bathing suit fly past.

“Anna!” calls Mr. Raphael as we emerge into daylight upstairs. “Hallo, Ruthie!” Mr. Raphael is wearing a straw hat. He’s carrying a canvas beach chair and a white bakery bag. In his teeth, he’s clutching an unlit cigar. “Dessert!” he says round his cigar, swinging the bag.

Mr. and Mrs. Greenbaum, Mrs. Newman, and Mrs. Feigelman arrive on the next train. We walk two blocks to the beach. Soon my grandmother and her friends are a beehive of laughter, their chairs and blankets a circle on the sand.

“Grandma, let’s change into our bathing suits,” I say.

“Wait, darling, let’s eat a little—everyone’s hungry.”

“But then we’ll have to digest,” I complain.

“Anna, we’ll eat; Ruthie will swim. We’ll watch her,” says Aunt Sophie.

“We won’t eat it all, Ruthela. Don’t worry!” says Mrs. Newman.

“Come, Ruthie, we’ll change in the bathroom.” My grandmother picks up the bag. “Ruthela, look at the waves—mine, mine, mine,” she says, snapping her tongue. She opens the bag. “What’s this?” she says, then slips into Yiddish.

“Oy!” Aunt Sophie cries.  Mr. Raphael takes the cigar out of his mouth. 

“What, Grandma?” I’m asking.

She’s looking from the bag to me. A feeling starts in my stomach. “Darling—maybe he didn’t burn the garbage yet,” she’s saying.  “Ruthie…”

My mouth is open, trying to answer.

“The dumbwaiter, darling. We brought the garbage to the beach.” The circle of faces looking at us is blurred. 

“The kishkes!” says Mr. Raphael.

My grandmother looks lost. “Smoke,” she answers. “Smoke—over Brooklyn.” Then she starts to cry.

“Anna,” says Aunt Sophie, her tongue snapping like crazy. 

Mr. Raphael hurries over with his handkerchief, but he can’t give it to both of us. Aunt Sophie has a tissue. My grandmother puts her arms around me. I’m holding my nose with the tissue. She’s blowing hers into the handkerchief.

“Mamela, Mamela,” she’s saying.

“Grandma, it’s O.K.,” I’m telling her, but I can’t stop crying.

“Darling, we’ll buy you a new bathing suit full price.  I’m sorry, Ruthie, darling.”

“Anna, Ruthie, have a Bialystoker roll,” says Aunt Sophie. 

I shake my head. Grandma Anna kisses me. She blows her nose and accepts the roll. She pulls pieces, small enough to chew with her false teeth, working each piece. “All that good food up in smoke!” she says. She shakes her head. She stops chewing. “Smoke.  Sm-m-oww-k! Ruthie, darling, where’s the garbage?”

“The—garbage?”

“Mamela, we’ll have a campfire!” My grandmother is dumping garbage onto the sand. “Everything happens for the best, Ruthie—there’s plenty that’s good here!” Bits of fish skin and orange rinds, onion peels, and a soup bone tumble out of the bag. “For the gulls—Harry, put this over there.” A dozen gulls show up from nowhere, swooping and diving for the scraps. “Let’s see…,” my grandmother is saying. “Ruthie, rinse these.”

She hands me three glass jars. They’re greasy, stuck with chicken feathers. At the water’s edge, I rub them clean with salt water and sand, watch feathers float on waves.

My grandmother and her friends are laughing, sorting through garbage, speaking Yiddish. “We need more paper!” my grandmother calls.

So now I gather other people’s garbage. Grandma Anna stuffs it into the bag. She glances at the lifeguards. One of them is looking over at us. “We’ll wait. Come, sweetheart, we’ll swim in our clothes.”

We swim and eat rolls and babka. We drink lemonade and swim again. The sun dries my shorts and polo shirt. I listen to the murmur of waves and voices, and doze.

“Mamela, it’s five o’clock!” my grandmother is saying. I sit up. The lifeguards are climbing the stairs to the boardwalk. Soon we’re the only ones left on the beach. “Harry, where’s your lighter?”

“We’ll need some wood,” says Mr. Raphael.

Then Aunt Sophie, Mr. and Mrs. Greenbaum, Mrs. Feigelman—all of us are scavenging the beach for driftwood. We pile it onto my grandmother’s garbage. My grandmother tears up the greasy bag.

“Here goes!” she calls. She spins the wheel of the cigar lighter, and the pile catches. Crackling, the fire soon dances against the evening sky. Mrs. Feigelman’s tongue is snapping. Mr. Raphael is chuckling. “Mine, mine, mine,” my grandmother is saying. “Na, Ruthie…” She opens her purse. “Here’s a dollar. Get a pound of hot dogs from the kosher butcher. Hurry before he closes. Three stores up from the corner—go!”

When I come back, I fill the jars with shells and sea glass while the hot dogs roast on sticks. With a jar top, I make circles in the sand and watch the waves erase them. Then my grandmother and her friends tell stories about the lives they left in Poland and Lithuania. “We were young, like you, Ruthie,” says Mrs. Feigelman.

Grandma Anna is humming in her low, scratchy voice. She’s holding me, rocking us both. Stars are sparkling in the sea. Mr. Raphael’s eyes are shining. Mrs. Newman smiles at me across the circle.

On the way home, I nod against Grandma Anna, rocked by the clattering subway train. Lights streak past the window in the dark tunnel: white, yellow, green, red, bathing suit blue.

“We’ll go shopping Monday, Ruthela.  I’ll tell your mamma,” my grandmother murmurs.

“Ruthela!” says Grandma Anna through the telephone the next day. “Darling, you’ll never guess—Mr. Handleman rang the bell. He found your bathing suit! He thought it was a bag of rags—just a bag of shmattes, darling!” Then he smelled the salami and kishkes. They didn’t smell too good. He said your bathing suit looked too new to be a rag. So I gave him kishkes, fresh! Your bathing suit’s here, Mamela.”

“I had fun, Grandma Anna.”

“Uh-huh. Listen, Ruthela…” says my grandmother. “You’ll come again sometime? Maybe Sunday—it will be hase. This time, we’ll get a good tan,” she says. “The others will come, too. We’ll have a nice fire, Bubeleh.”

“I—I—uh, yes!” I hear myself say.

My grandmother is chuckling. “Ruthie, we’ll have a new story to tell. That’s better than food. We’ll tell about Mr. Handleman and the bathing suit—sweetheart, everyone will be so happy. Mine, mine, mine!” My grandmother snaps her tongue. I imagine sitting close to my grandmother and her friends, sitting in a circle on the sand, warm in the chill evening.

A family memory-story

“Circles on the Sand” is a memory of my grandmother. It’s a story I heard told. My grandmother went to the beach with her friends, threw out her bathing suit, and brought the garbage to the beach. It was a family story, a family memory. My mother and her sisters and my uncle laughed every time someone told it. My family was a family that laughed, and also argued fiercely. Everything my family did was fierce, passionate. But the humor, that ran deep, right down to the molecules.

I knew my grandmother from the inside of me—me to her, a deep communication that didn’t depend on words. Anna Bailenson spoke broken English. I remember her as being my size, then shorter than me by the time I was twelve. I knew her body by hugs, physical proximity that was natural. She was hard, even muscular. She was strong. She emigrated here, waited a year for my grandfather, then supported the family of four children, because my grandfather was a union organizer. That was his unpaid work.

I wrote the story of the beach and the garbage, and of my grandmother’s passing in a story called “Rose Petals,” and sent it to Cricket Magazine. Cricket printed it. They then printed two other stories about my family. I knew that I’d begun a long book, though I didn’t know how it would take shape. 

But I’d stumbled on the phenomenon of recollection. Opening the images I carried with me to find the experience, the meaning, the feeling, the story. I had a number of such images of me and my grandmother. They were potent with feeling. As I wrote them, they became an immigration story, and gradually told the story of my first-generation American family, my grandparents’ children and grandchildren, and the four blocks in Brooklyn where we lived.

The story of the garbage and the blue bathing suit was so vivid, so characteristic of the way my grandmother was, that I inserted myself into it and “relived” it, let it play out. I realized at some point that I was writing for my life, reconstructing childhood from inside myself out, to the place that was timeless and existed in me—Crown Street, Troy Avenue, Schenectady Avenue, and Montgomery Street. And inside me lived my mother, my father, my sister, my grandparents, aunts and uncles. Then, I watched myself find an older brother and a younger brother. Leon and Georgie let me explore the feelings hidden, unspoken but there. They helped me find the love I so needed, more love, and understanding of the mysteries of my childhood than anyone could have given to me in one, short 15 years of experience together. 

And it was real. The stories in Ruthie Pincus of Brooklyn are as real as life. 

I was immersed in Ruthie for 25 years. Through her, I reclaimed childhood. I found my mother, my father, and myself. It was deep work we never could have done together. It was my work to do. 

I still love to read from these stories.  I go back and understand more, immersed in the atmosphere of those years, and know, more deeply with the passage of time, who my parents were, who I was, and who I am. 

Do you have a vivid memory or childhood, your own or a family member’s, that you have written or are longing to write? Do you ever write to remember? What did you think of Helena’s latest column? Share with us in the comments.

Related reading: Helena Writes

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